Being a responsible traveler is, now more than ever, a must.
Traveling is an incredibly enriching experience. While we travel, we have a chance to see beautiful places; admire the most amazing wildlife; learn about different ways of life and get in touch with unique cultures and interesting peoples.
However, the way we travel, the places we visit, and even the way we spend our money do have an impact on the environment and on the communities we get in touch with. The least we can do, as tourists, is to minimize the negative impact of our travels, and wherever possible try to turn it into a positive one. This is what responsible tourism is all about.
Though we should all strive to be more respectful of the environment, people and wildlife alike, it’s important to clarify something: nobody is expected to be a perfectly responsible tourist. I know for sure that I’ll never achieve perfection. The whole point here is to make sure to at least be a more aware tourist, a person that knows the real impact of his actions and, more importantly, understands that every little bit will help to make the world a better place for everyone.
In this post, I will suggest all the things you can do to become a more responsible tourist. Before I do so, however, let me clarify what responsible tourism is.
What Is Responsible Tourism?
According to the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism of 2002, responsible tourism is tourism that minimizes negative economic, environmental and social impacts; contributes to improve the well being of local communities, including their working conditions, and has a positive impact on the local economy; has a positive impact on the conservation of natural and cultural heritage and at the same time allows a more meaningful connection between the travelers and local communities; is culturally sensitive.
With the tourism industry accounting for about 10% of the global GDP, you can see how this can have an impact on the lives of people and on the environment, in both a positive and negative way. It’s up to us, travelers, to make sure that tourism has a positive impact on the world as a whole, and that responsible tourism practices are implemented.
We all should have a more responsible approach in the way we travel (in fact, we should learn to be more respectful of the environment on our everyday life, and not just as we travel!), and the good news is that this doesn’t have to be costly!
25 Ways To Become A More Responsible Traveler
Beware of overtourism
Overtourism – which refers to the presence of too many tourists in a destination – regularly comes up when talking about responsible tourism. Many destinations have become increasingly popular in the last decade or so; but while some do have the infrastructure necessary to deal with the negative impact that tourism brings; others simply don’t.
In places that have a tradition of receiving large amount of tourists, tourism can cause an increase in the cost of living. If tourists are ready to pay higher rates for common goods such as groceries, local shops may increase the prices, but locals may be unable to pay them. Owners of apartment may prefer renting to tourists so that they can charge higher rental rates; and locals who have traditionally lived in the area may be forced to leave as they can’t pay those rates.
This has been happening in many European cities – so much so that 11 of them have created a Network of Southern European Cities Against Tourism.
In countries where tourism is a more recent phenomenon, the infrastructure may not be sufficient to counteract the effects of overtourism, such as overcrowding; increased pollution; waste disposal; exploitation of animals and people; gentrification of specific areas; a decrease in the quality of life of the local community; as well as the spectacularization (with the consequent dilution) of culture.
Many countries have been negatively affected by tourism in this sense. A good example – though by all means not the only one – is Bali.
Read more about Bali in my post Has Bali Lost Its Magic?
While the issue of overtourism should be ultimately dealt with by local tourism boards and governments, as a responsible tourist you can certainly do something to lower your impact.
So what can you do against the dangers of overtourism?
The most obvious thing is to visit lesser-known places. Even within a very popular destination, you can easily get off the beaten path. For example, when in Sri Lanka you can go to Wellawaya instead of backpackers’ hub Ella; when in Morocco head to the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains for a change. The locals will be welcoming, you’ll have the place to yourself and your experience will be very rewarding.
Going to Sri Lanka? Make sure to check out my post Sri Lanka Off The Beaten Path.
And if you really do want to go to the most popular destinations, consider going in the off season, when there will be less tourists around. The weather may not be as great, but on the plus side you won’t have to stand in line forever to visit popular sites!
Be wary of activities where animals are involved
Stay away of activities and tours that involve the use of animals. Keep in mind that there is a lot of money involved in wildlife tourism, and most operators are interested in profits rather than the well-being of animals.
Activities such as elephant riding, selfies with tigers, swimming with dolphins or manta rays; and shark cage diving – to name but a few – may seem harmless or plain fun to you, but they are truly irresponsible and cause lots of harm and suffering to the animals.
Read more about the use of animals in tourist attractions in this post.
Even giving money to a dancing monkey or to a snake charmer is questionable – it’s pretty much like giving money to a circus, and you surely wouldn’t want to do that, right?
But if you think that it is only activities involving exotic animals you stay away from during your travels, think again. That carriage ride through the streets of Rome or Sorrento may seem very romantic to you, but chances are that the horse is stressed by the traffic, the cars, the scooters and the noise, and all for the sake of keeping you entertained for one hour. And unless you are physically impaired, why would you want to ride a donkey or mule around Petra and why would you want it to carry your heavy backpack during a hike? Just pack as light as possible and carry it yourself!
When doing a safari, make sure that the operator is a responsible one that puts the interests of wildlife first. You should be concerned if you notice things such as jeeps speeding through a national park (speed limits help avoid hitting wild animals); or too many jeeps at a sighting – that’s what happened to my friend in Yala National Park.
Speaking of animals, do not feed wildlife
Most people mean well when they do it, but remember that feeding wildlife if one of the most irresponsible practices you can think of: animals should eat what they find in nature, and feeding them ultimately breaks their migration and reproduction cycle. Even feeding bread to the ducks you may see at the park isn’t good for them!
Protect local fauna
Turtle eggs, green sea turtles, sharks, river dolphins and much more. Endangered animals often become human food for the most various reasons (but rarely because of pure hunger). No matter how much the locals rave about the many advantages of eating such things, and even if your foodie self is intrigued, avoid doing so.
For the same reason, avoid buying goods made with the leather or fur of endangered animals.
And by all means, do not pick up starfish from the water for the sake of a pretty photo or to show it to your children. These animals are very delicate and die almost instantly once they are out of water.
Respect local laws, customs and culture
One of the most rewarding things when traveling is encountering new, diverse and unique cultures and ways of life. Always show respect for the local customs and traditions, and by all means for the local laws. Being a responsible tourist in this sense may require dressing up more conservatively in general; and more specifically covering your head, shoulders and legs when entering a temple or a church (this very much goes for churches in Italy and Spain as well as Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka or Hindu temples in India).
Respect sacred places
Whether it is a church, a temple or a sacred natural site, make sure to act respectfully when visiting. Avoid things that may offend the local community such as speaking loudly, running around, taking photos of people worshipping or going way overboard taking naked selfie like a group of backpackers did on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia in 2015.
Respect human rights
Unfortunately, sex tourism – the practice of traveling overseas in search of sexual activity, usually with prostitutes – is still a thing. Don’t be this person! Do not get involved in the exploitation of women and, by all means do not get involved in the sexual exploitation of children!
Be polite to others – travelers and locals alike, and even more so the people that work in the tourism industry ie the reception staff at your hotel; the cleaning staff; the waiter at a restaurant and so on. Remember to treat people the same way you’d like to be treated: with respect and kindness.
Ask for permission before taking photos of people
In some countries, people love posing for photos and in fact, the minute they’ll notice you snapping something or someone near them, they will call you to ask to take a picture of them too. In others, taking photos is a big no-no, with some groups in Mexico’s Chiapas thinking that photos will steal their soul. As a rule of thumb, make sure to ask permission before taking a photo, and if you get a no as an answer, say ok and politely walk away.
Learn the basics of local language
Always make a bit of an effort to learn the very basics of the language of the country you are visiting. Even saying things such as hello, thank you, please goes a long way, and the locals will appreciate your efforts.
Don’t give money to beggars
I know this sounds quite harsh, and you probably think that as a responsible tourist it is your duty to give to those in need. But are you sure that giving money to beggars is the right way of doing so? In fact, giving money to beggars may only encourage more people to ask tourists for money. Remember that there often is a network of exploitation even behind beggars.
Don’t give money to children
If giving money to beggars is questionable, giving money to children is simply irresponsible. In many places, children are taken out of school and sent to the street to beg for money or to work selling small trinkets. In some cases, it is not even the parents that are sending their kids to the street to look for money, but an actual network of criminals (the so called “begging mafia”) that exploit the children.
Look out for organizations that help supporting children in need through schooling, education and inclusion programs, and make a donation to them instead. Even a donation of books, pens and other necessary school material at a local school may be a good idea – check out with the school beforehand to see what is needed.
In fact, don’t even give them candy
Children love candies and in many countries, as soon as they see a tourist approach, they run to ask for a “bonbon.” However, there are many reasons why you shouldn’t give candy (or cookies, or sweets in general) to children.
First of all, sugary goods are unhealthy and you really shouldn’t encourage unhealthy eating habits. Sugar is bad for teeth, and this is something you really want to keep in mind in places where access to dental care (and in fact, access to water and a toothbrush!) isn’t a given.
Lastly, oftentimes candies come in plastic wraps, and many children won’t think about it twice before throwing the plastic wherever they happen to be, adding to an already dire garbage disposal emergency.
Play with the kids instead
Instead of giving money or candy to children, you should actually engage with them as kids. You can do so many things in this sense! Join an impromptu ball game in the street; teach them a few words of your language; play magic tricks; or even simply ask them questions. Do remember, however, to always wait for the children to interact first, and never impose yourself and your presence on them.
Volunteer for an actual cause
There is an ongoing trend among the backpackers’ community that suggests you can travel the world for free or at least for very very cheap, if you pick random jobs along the way. This is not the right post to get into a discussion about free travel (which is a myth, by the way). All I want to say is that you need to pick the jobs you do along the way (and where and how you do them) very wisely.
You know that receptionist or hostel job in exchange for a bed in Antigua Guatemala? It surely helps you to save a whopping $5 to $10 USD per day. You will celebrate your savings; and at the same time the hostel owner will celebrate not having to actually pay a stipend; but the local who’d get that job instead will be left unable to support his family.
If you really want to volunteer, do so for an actual cause. And even in this case, put your responsible tourist hat on and do a thorough research before you surrender your time, skills (and at times even money) to an organization that is supposed to bring relief to a local community. This post by Uncornered Market puts volunteering and voluntourism in prospect.
Respect the environment
It is only too often that tourists here in Sardinia, where I live, are caught stealing bags of sand from the beach. Mind you, Sardinia is hardly the only victim of this disrespectful action. I have seen people doing the same on the dunes of Sossusvlei, in Namibia, for example. Please, be a responsible tourist and leave sand (and shells, stones and plants) where it belongs: the process through which sand is formed is very complex and stealing it seriously impoverishes the environment!
Use less plastic
Plastic is an issue anywhere in the world. If you think that turtles or other marine life caught with plastic in its stomach is only an issue in Asia, think again. Less than a month ago a pregnant sperm whale was found on the shores of Sardinia and upon further examination researchers found that she had more than 22 kg of plastic in her stomach.
I know that eliminating the use of all plastic from your daily life is hard, and even harder when you are traveling. But there are some things you can do to produce less waste and to make sure you are doing your bit to become a more responsible traveler.
Use a refillable water bottle with a filter and use it to fill up at hotels and hostels. I travel with a Lifestraw and it is super handy and easy to use.
Ask for no straws in your drinks. In some countries, you’ll even get a straw in your bottle – make sure to point out you don’t want a straw when you order. And if you know you are going to be needing a straw (or else, how are you going to drink your coconut water), carry a reusable straw with you.
Use packaging-free beauty products. I am a massive fan of Lush solid shampoo and conditioner. Not only they don’t come with any plastic wrapping or bottles, but they are the best products I could be using on my delicate scalp! There are many other brands that now produce package-free beauty products.
Pack a canvas bag or two in your backpack, to use at markets or grocery shops instead of plastic bags.
By all means, do not abandon your garbage and, wherever possible, join group efforts to clean up places such as beaches and trails. Such initiatives are easy to find on the web, starting from Facebook.
Leave no trace
Make sure to leave as little footprint as possible in any place you visit – be it a city, a forest or a beach.
If you like hiking, make sure to stay on the trail as the rest of the area may be in recuperation, and if you get off you step on the local flora and endanger it. And if you need to use the bush during the hike, make sure not to abandon any toilet paper: put it in a bag and dispose of it once back.
By all means, if you have to go for a number 2 when hiking and there is no toilet, try to do it as far as possible from any water source to avoid the risk of contamination (as a general rule, at least 50 meters from a river or lake). For the same reason, avoid washing dishes or even just swimming in rivers or lakes, especially when people drink from it (this is often the case in Patagonia).
Read more about Patagonia in my post 30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia and discover the incredible hikes in the region on my post Hiking In Patagonia: 16 Incredible Trails.
Don’t waste water and other precious resources
Ah, those endless hot showers! Who doesn’t love them? Well, in some parts of the world water is scarce and if you want to be a more responsible traveler (and in fact, a more responsible human altogether), you need to change your habits so that you waste less water.
Take shorter showers, for example. Only do laundry when you have a full load. Ask for your towels not to be changed. And make sure to turn the lights and air-conditioning or heating off when you leave your room. Some cities already have strict policies regarding the use of heating and air-conditioning, to limit the levels of pollution.
Buy local products and food
One of the easiest, most pleasant and fun ways of being a more responsible traveler is by shopping locally. Whether it is a small souvenir that you want to take home, or a meal or a snack that you want to have, go for something that has been locally produced and made to support the local economy.
It’s actually very easy! For example, if you are walking around Bangkok opt to have a fresh pineapple from a local vendor rather than a fruit salad in from a chain supermarket. When you are in Nicaragua, opt to have a fresh lemonade made by the small shop next door, and shop at the local market. Chances are the fruit will taste much better and it will be much cheaper!
The same goes for food. Opt for street food rather than looking for Domino’s Pizza, and check out places that have a good mix of locals and tourists – those are the places where food is bound to be very good and safe to eat.
Buy souvenir at local markets, even better if you see the artist making them – they are way cheaper than those you’ll find at a duty free shop.
Do a bit of bargaining, but don’t go too far with it
Coming from a country where bargaining is not practiced, to me one of the most fun things when shopping at markets in places like Latin America, Asia and the Middle East is that I get to bargain for cheaper prices. However, remember that a nice and easy way to be a more responsible traveler is to not over-bargaining. There is no point in pushing it to get an extra discount, when in reality that is the equivalent of no more than $50 cents.
Stay at local, sustainable places
Picking sustainable accommodation when traveling is easier than you can imagine, so you can do your share as a responsible traveler even when you simply go to bed. The most obvious thing to do in this sense is to stay at local guesthouses and small hotels that are locally owned and family run: you’ll have a far more enriching experience, and you’ll save quite a bit.
Another thing you may want to look for is eco-lodges or community lodges. Eco-lodges typically strive to minimize their negative impact on the environment, and are fantastic accommodation options when staying in a natural area ie the mountains or the jungle. In places like Guyana, local indigenous communities have created several lodges in an effort to use their resources in a constructive manner. They strive to protect the local environment, the culture and since they represent good employment opportunity for the local community.
Read more about community eco-lodges in Guyana in my post How Three Tiny Villages Are Helping To Preserve Indigenous Culture In Guyana.
Last but not least, do your responsible traveler research and look out for places that have been approved by companies such as Green Globe, Earth Check and Rainforest Alliance. What they do is working with hotels in order to raise their profile when it comes to social and environmental practices.
Travel with ethical tour operators
Whether going on a day tour or on a longer guided trip, be a responsible traveler and pick the operator you travel with wisely. Never take part in tours where cruelty towards animals is involved and promoted, such as elephant rides, dolphin shows, etc.
Make sure to travel with a company that shows respect for the environment; that employees members of local community and gives back to it; that is owned locally or that devotes parts of its profits to a cause.
I traveled with And Beyond in Phinda, in South Africa and Botswana, and was impressed by how much they give back to the local communities and the environment, and by how much they do for the local wildlife.
Read more about my experience with And Beyond in my post 11 Reasons Why You’ll Love Phinda Game Reserve.
Watch out for your carbon footprint
Responsible tourism in terms of carbon footprint means taking less flights (overland travel can be a lot of fun!), or opting for direct ones. Indeed, taking off and landing consume a lot of fuel and increase carbon emissions.
Living in the island of Sardinia, I don’t have much of a choice and unfortunately in this sense I don’t get to be a responsible traveler: I have to fly everywhere, and more often than not, I can’t even fly directly to my final destination, as there are no direct intercontinental flights from here.
Other than taking less flights, if you really want to be a more responsible traveler start packing lighter and fly carry-on only: less weight on board means that the plane will use less fuel (why did you think Ryanair has raised the fees for checking in luggage so much?).
Do use public transportation wherever possible, and move around by train, bus, metro. Even better: walk or bike! Some cities are incredibly bike friendly!
Spread the word about responsible tourism
I must admit that being a responsible traveler is a bit of work, and while some may do it effortlessly, others may not be aware of the consequences of their (irresponsible) choices when traveling. Do your best to spread the word and help others become more responsible tourists, by politely yet firmly pointing out that certain practices may have a negative impact on the local community, the environment and the wildlife.
Are you a responsible traveler? What practices are you implementing in your every day and travel life to have less negative impact on the world?